Saturday, February 28, 2015


The last time we were at Target, I took Liam to the toy aisle and he saw the kits containing little science projects.  He wordlessly tossed the Volcano and the Slime making kits into the cart.  OK then, time for a little chemistry.

I'm sorry that I was too busy keeping Liam from emptying an entire 2 gallon container of vinegar into the plastic mountain to get pictures of the Volcano in action, but suffice to say, it was a big, messy hit.

Next up was slime.  Honestly, if Liam hadn't been along and chosen it, the Slime kit would've stayed at Target.  But Liam was so excited he begged for two days, until we finally had nice enough weather for another outdoor science experiment.

The kit came with powders and dyes, so that you could make the slime red or green, glow-in-the-dark or magnetic.

Liam decided an all-in-one slime to be the best.  Here he is, mixing red dye into the setting slime so that it looks like the spewtem of a TB patient:

After he finished with his slime, it was captured in a paper cup.  My reaction?

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find kid-friendly explinations of chemical reactions that Liam could access right now.  I'm thinking of breaking out the microscope and starting to examine things under higher and higher magnification, until we can talk about molecules.  In the meantime, chemistry is just, fizz, ooze, ewwww.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Zen of Autism

Sometimes I think my son would be worshipped as a bodhisattva in the Buddhist community.  He is perfectly Zen.  There is only now.  Each action is a pleasure (or displeasure) unto itself and outcomes are meaningless.  He isn't even attached to his artwork.  I could turn my front yard into a zen sand garden and he'd be perfectly happy to redraw it daily.

I think.

You see, I just don't know what he's really thinking.  He can't talk about it.  I don't mean in that "typical guy" way - he really can't express his thoughts verbally.  And when he writes, it's in bright fragments that don't connect.

And that's where the moments of displeasure come in.  Like last night, he started crying hard over some malfunction in a program.  "Why are you sad?"  "What do you want it to do?"  "How can we help you?"  All questions were met with the script, "This is the worst day ever!"

He just couldn't do it.  He couldn't say what he needed, because he works from moment to moment without a goal - without a plan - without an overarching idea, so when it doesn't work, he can't retrace his steps or tell where the problem is.  How can you find a weak link when there are no links?

(As it happened his free trial of "Videopad" was over and it's become his go-to for video and sound editing.   Guess what we just bought?)

Another example of missing meaning was when we went to the first meeting for Special Olympics for track.  He sort-of followed along, from moment to moment, but if he was too far from the person giving the instructions, he'd wander a few feet away and play kick-the-dirt or spin around.  Even running the track, he got distracted, started walking along the berm and eventually lost track of the other runners and ended up with the younger kids (the kids in his age group had long returned to the other end of the field).  He didn't have a problem with doing any of the things asked, but he clearly had no idea why he was there.  Why do you run?  What is a race?  What is competetion - or even sport?

If someone from another galaxy came to Earth and asked about competetion, how would you explain it?  "You try to do better than the other people."  "Why?"  "Because it's fun to win!"  "Why?"  Liam's social wiring is not able to take in the purpose of this getting-together-for-competetion idea.  In fact, if he's watching a movie or TV show and there is a bad guy, he will say, "NO - he's a GOOD guy!"  No competetion, no opposition.

In order to want to compete, you have to have an ego, and Liam shows no sign of it.  There is no value assigned to his ideas, his art or his work. It happened and it was fun or not.  Moving on.

So the little bodhisattva is both blessed to be so content and challenged to understand OUR need for meaning.  Because, one day, we won't be here to interpret for him, and others may not be as patient, kind or accepting of someone who wants, but can't say why and is brilliant, but cannot apply it to any purpose we can share.  We'll keep looking.  In the meantime - I'll work to appreciate the moments more - seems like there's some wisdom in that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


When our kids are in school, they disappear for 6 hours, during which time the classroom teachers have to figure out how to cover language arts, math, "nutrition breaks," PE, Art, Music, science, computer lab and still be prepared for the seemingly arbitrary testing schedule on which they themselves will also be evaluated.  I also know, from my previous teaching experience that sometimes, in a 40 minute class, it can take up to 20 minutes to get everone going in the same direction.

I have great respect and a little awe for the teachers who work in schools.

So, I was nervous at first that we wouldn't stack up.  First of all, I knew that without the prospect of herding kids through a jam-packed schedule we'd be teaching far fewer than 6 hrs./ day.  Figuring out how many hours of instruction would happen each day was one of our first challenges.  We seem to have finally found the balance - fewer classes per day, but more time per class.  Sessions on ST Math or Grammer Trainer usually run about an hour.  Science experiments also go about an hour, but we go through a couple at a setting (exploring polarization and the laws of attraction in magnets, for example).    Other subjects vary between 40 min and an hour.

We get a lot done, but there is certainly more space in our day.  Are we doing enough?   A couple of days ago, I did a little happy dance when I got this e-mail from Liam's online math program:

It means that in the 2 months since we began using the program, we've completed 40% of the ENTIRE 3rd grade math curriculum.  And he likes it.  I know this because of how he reacts when he gets it wrong.  He gets angry.  He's angry because he cares.

We also do work on other programs for reading comprehension and grammar skills.  When he gets it wrong in those areas, his mind drifts, he yawns and he starts talking about ANYTHING but what he's supposed to be doing.   He's escaping because he doesn't care.  

In both cases, I'm grateful for the flexible schedule, because like it or not, the solution is pretty much the same - keep doing it until he get it.  

Because sometimes you'll feel the great satisfaction of conquering something you care about and sometimes you feel the relief of just getting through some crap you don't, but you have to learn to push ahead, either way.  Yesterday, after an exhausting session on comparing fractions, Liam finally got 100% on his quiz and wanted to take a picture with it (my pic of his pic taken in photo booth).  Totally worth it.

At this point in the process,  I'm grateful for the space to notice why things are hard and the time to work it out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

For the Love of All Things. . .Fuzzy

I have mixed feelings about petting zoos.  I know that the animals are subjected to a constant assault of well-meaning, if inept little hands.  But for Liam's sake, I'm glad of them.  Awareness of other living creatures came slowly for Liam.  His interest in the cats finally made him crawl, but once moblie, he forgot all about them until about 2 years ago.

Dogs have always been a little frightening to him.  I think it's dog-kind's natural, in-your-face friendlieness that Liam can't quite understand.  It's like, "if it's so friendly, why is it barking and jumping on me?" I can see how this would be especially troubling when many dogs are at face-level, even without jumping!

Because we had 2 cats, Liam got used to, then infatuated with them.  Well, at least with Jake.  Harley was a bit of a diva (div-dude?).  Finding the balance between his interst in touching an animal and it's wish to be touched has been a big challenge.

Petting zoos, if nothing else, are full of animals used to less-than-perfect petting.  Every animal I've seen is calm and pretty patient.

For a long time, when we'd go to the Studio City Farmer's Market, we'd ask if he wanted to go into the little petting zoo.  Until he was about 5, the answer was always "no".  For the next couple of years, he'd sometimes say "yes," but was very shy about actually touching anything.  If he did, someone else had to handle the animal.

The ice broke at the Dixie Canyon School Faire, where there was a small zoo, which happened to be owned and operated by an autistic young man, called Danny's Farm.  Liam fell in love with a sheep named Lucy.

He also got in there and gave Peanut, the alpaca, some love.

After that, he was much more open to petting the animals at the market.

This Sunday was a big day.  We'd already done the shopping, so I stayed outside the pen with our groceries and let him buy the ticket and go in all by himself.  He had asked twice to visit the petting zoo, which was unusual in itself.  Once inside, he happily wandered around to all of the animals.  He got very friendly with the chicken, petting it until it dropped off to sleep.
 Then he headed for the tub of bunnies.  I was shocked to see him scoop up a large one and hold it, then carry it over to me.
Yes, I'm aware this is bad bunny-holding form, but the bun was relaxed and I made sure he supported him.  After his first bunny, I did go in and encouraged him to hold one a little longer, on his lap.

He was careful and gentle and very, very happy.  He's even starting to tolerate some dogs, in short bursts, as long as they're calm.  We still have to stop him from using the cat as a pillow from time to time and remind him that not all cats are into head-butts, but it's a start!

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Liam loves art.  He could draw or design on the computer all day.  He begs for editing programs to make films and animation.  He is an art animal.  Of course, he has little interest in learning art from me.  I'm kind of a weird artist anyway.

My dad was a wonderful, trained artist and taught me a great deal, but I didn't take very many outside classes - mostly stuck to pencil drawing and crazy, fantasy pen art in my teens (don't ask).  As an adult, my main claim to fame is Etch-A-Sketch art.  I wasn't all that into it as a kid, but I remember being at a party as an adult, where there was a n Etch-A-Sketch on the coffee table.  Someone remarked that it was impossible to draw a human figure on an Etch-A-Sketch.  I  must've been bored, because I picked up the toy and proceeded to draw a reclining nude.  Something about doing adult art on a child's drawing toy pleased me.  After that, I started doing more Etch-A-Sketch drawings, buying more frames and getting fancier as I went along.  Here are two pieces - a version of a sketch for DaVinci's "Leda and the Swan" and a tribute to Escher.  I call it "Escher Sketch."  There are more examples here:

Liam's style is cool, loose and very expressive.  And he works best when he has certain restraints (like a computer program).  In a way, he reminds me of Tim Burton - brilliant when he's constrained by the limitations of stop-motion animation and very messy when left to his own devices - still interesting, but much less focused.  That's Liam's art.  Still in all, he's naturally much more talented than I ever was, so I jokingly refer to myself as Michelangelo's assistant - rinsing brushes and bringing new "canvases" so the master can work.  

To keep things fresh, I signed him up for after-school art classes at his old school.  We already love the art teacher, Eden, and he has the added bonus of seeing old classmates on campus, who are all very excited to see him!

For the past few weeks, Liam has been following along, having fun, but mostly just copying the teacher's example more or less line-for-line and color-for-color.  I was happy this week, when Eden brought in a long, decorative Indonesian mask then showed the project.  The kids were to create two mask-inspired drawings on a divided sheet of paper.  Each mask needed to show an opposite emotion.  Liam picked happy and angry.  The colors were to reflect the emotions.  For the first time, he drew his own work, only refrencing the ideas, but not the actual designs of the teacher's work.  
Always far less interested in the color than the drawing, he started playing more with the water colors in the water cup than putting them down on paper, until the end, when he slapped them on because he wanted to leave with a finished piece (in that way, at least, he's like me - I was never driven by color either).  He did say he wanted reds for the angry face and yellow for the happy face, which I thought was cool.  I dig these faces.

A while back, he started playing with the Etch-A-Sketch too.  Here's his version of Perry the Platypus from "Phineas and Ferb" from a couple of years ago.

Maybe he learned something from me after all.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Field Trip!

Before we began this homeschool adventure, I went online and asked for homeschool information from  the local museums, then promptly forgot all about them.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the email invitation last week for a free day at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum for homeschoolers.  In addition to the regular tours, there would be special activities for the students.  Cool.  And the Metro just added an "Expo" line to Exposition Park, where the Natural History Museum and California Science Center are located.  Free field trip and I don't have to drive - sign me up.

On Thursday, we walked the two blocks to the Metro station and began the easy, two-train jaunt to Exposition Park.  Liam cuddled into my shoulder on the train and we played silly, hand-slap games.  I noticed a young woman looking adoringly at Liam as we played.  During the change-over at Union Station she got off too and mentioned how sweet he looked.  He has that effect on people.

After Union Station, the train went above ground.

The park across the street from the Vermont/Expo stop had a great playground and the walkway to the museum was criss-crossed with animal tracks to identify.  Liam enjoyed following them to the Museum.

We arrived just in time to see the interactive dinosaur show in the North American Mammal Exhibit Hall.  Liam was a little nervous about the echoy, dark hall filled with chattering children, so we stood at the edge of the circle of kids.  He held his ears for a while, then relaxed when the show started. He was very excited about the baby triceritops in the show and thought it was funny when the palentologist fed him.

After the show, we cheked out the Mammal Hall.  The cases of animals were somewhat interesting to him.  I got to explain the concept of opposable thumbs, when we got to the opposums.  But fossils were of no use to him.  Dead, empty things weren't very compelling.  All of the lovely staffers who offered to show and explain the various parts of the Triceritops on the table in the main hall were mostly ignored.

We stopped off for lunch at the grill.

If you do the Museum and the Science Center - word of advice - the food is better at the Science Center.  Usually, Liam will dive into an order of fries.  Here - not so much (I tried them and have to agree with him on this one).
I let him have a cookie to give a little energy for the next leg of the journey - to the interactive lab.

Hands-on exploration is Liam's style.  Here, each frog played it's own song.  If you tap several frogs, only once - you get a chorus of different species.
Some things just inspire silliness.
This one was for Dad - in memory of the opposum family footprints he discovered in our crawl space. 

I had promised a visit to the Space Shuttle, Endeavor, which is housed at the Science Center.  Luckily the Science Center is ALWAYS free and just a short walk across the park, so it was a perfect add-on.  
I want to return and just do another day at the Science Center.  The last time we came, Liam was much smaller and less engaged.  Highly interactive and diverse troughout the whole complex, this was much more up Liam's alley.
First, we saw the Space Shuttle.  Liam is under it.  I was surprised by how tiny the insulation tiles were.   It was cool, but not as interactive as other exhibits.  We moved on to the Kelp Forest.  Liam loves aquariums.  We spent a long time here. And ran out of memory on my camera!

He asked for my phone and shot this of the fish.  I love his narration.

We managed to hit one more area on the way out, a room outfitted with different stations to experience the forces of air and water and how they can affect the land.  My favorite was a large drum which could be aimed at a wall of spangles to create a sonic ripple when struck.  Liam's favorite was a long table on the patio that was fitted with water guns, pumps and levers to control water flow.  One filled cups on a wheel until the wheel spun, another allowed water to flow down two tracks to race plastic balls and another was a game of "move the waterwheel" where two players at opposite ends of the table could fire water pistols into a metal wheel to try to push it to the opposite end of the table.  Good, wet, messy fun.  

Because I didn't have to worry about slogging home in rush hour traffic, we stayed and played at the lovely playground outside the museums before heading back to the Vermont/Expo station.  

The next day, I downloaded the photos from the trip and asked Liam to make a PowerPoint about it.  

He wanted to title his presentation "EXPO LINE."  After he designed a slide with a graphic representation of the train lines we rode, I tried to get him to think about the sequence of the trip.  What happened first?  What do you remember?  Then he typed, "The Sun Side is the shadow of the Light."  It was such an unexpectedly beautiful, poetic phrase that I simply said, "tell me more."  Fragmented images poured out, attached to the pictures.  I only stepped in to help with grammar, if I thought it to be too hard for a viewer to understand.  Otherwise, I let him write as he thinks.  

The original PowerPoint has embedded videos, which made the .mov too big for this blog, so I've attached the slides as JPEGs.  The day, from Liam's point of view:

 The aquarium portion of the trip was by far Liam's favorite.  I was happy to find out the trains run all the way to Long Beach.  Next field trip: The Aquarium of the Pacific.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Getting it Wrong

Until now, the math that Liam has been doing on his new program, ST Math, has been a review.  Learning how to interface with the program, while successfully solving the fun puzzles has made the program a pleasure for him.  So he was more than a little disappointed when we passed his previous knowledge and he hit his first wall.  Liam's reaction to messing up is to get silly and start making wild guesses or to scold himself.  The trick is to get him back on track with as few cues as possible, so he can continue to solve the problems himself.  Usually, with a little time, he gets back into the swing of things.  Usually.

We're also in a constant struggle to get him to understand the concept of personal boundaries and ownership.  He's so sweet that most people dismiss it if he grabs their wrist to check out their watch or pushes ahead in line to see the display on the cash register.  They look at me like I'm being too harsh when I correct him - trying desperately to teach him that it's NOT OK to push ahead, or grab people, or reprogram the answering machine, or change the temp on the thermostat. . .

In most instances,  we're there and can stop things before they get out of hand.  But on Superbowl Sunday, at our neighbor's house, the damage was much more severe.  We were sitting in the TV room watching the game and the kids were playing in the other room.  Liam came in to ask "what does "ruined" mean?"  Our friends had just returned from visiting Mayan ruins on vacation, so we thought that was what he was talking about.

Later, as we were leaving, I noticed that the styrofoam project the kids had done in the dining room had left a blizzard of white crumbs, so I started to brush the staticky mess of the table.  Then I saw it.  A perfectly scribed logo of "WINDOWS" IN THE WOOD OF THE TABLE!!!!

The 3 kids (ages 7-8) had all been carving styrofoam with a butter knife.  On the dining room table.

I can only imagine that Liam had not noticed that the other kids carved foam with another layer beneath it.  He just grabbed some foam when it was his turn, saw how easily the knife marked the table and found an opportunity to draw on a new surface.  He had no concept of it being someone's table, something unfixable or something really, really bad.  The question, "what does ruined mean?" suddenly made sense.  The other kids probably told him he'd "ruined" the table.  Of course, they didn't try to stop him or tell any of us, which is pretty funny.  Luckily, John is good with wood and will do his best to minimize the damage.  But it can't be completely erased.

I told our neighbors that we'll always be linked by the words on her table.  At least I got a laugh on that one.

And we'll keep working on the idea of property, personal space and what "ruined" means.